Next semester I will be teaching again English Romantic Literature after a long lapse, spent teaching mainly Victorian Literature. I last taught Romanticism in the academic year 2004-5, which is really a long time ago–even though the 21st century produces this strange effect of making all yearly dates beginning with 20 seem just yesterday. Although to the layperson it might seem that the literary periods of the past stay static, the fact is that they are in constant turmoil because of expanding research. What Romanticism was back in 1988, when Prof. Guillermina Cenoz so beautifully taught it to my second-year undergrad class, is not the same Romanticism I taught in 2004. 14 years later, in 2018, Romanticism is, once more, quite a different construction. Or is it?
The way to gauge the changes in how a particular literary period is apprehended is to read the introductions aimed at students. In my undergrad years I learned Romanticism from the Norton Anthology of English Literature (volume 2) and the truly splendid New Pelican Guide to English Literature, edited by Boris Ford. The nine volumes are still in my office and I marvel at how dense they are–Ford and his collaborators assumed that undergrads were sophisticated readers, willing and happy to study what amounts to an extraordinarily long text. The last volume, if I am correct, was published in 1995 and put an end to a classic style of presenting information to students, before the emergence of theory seeped down to more basic levels and before identity politics wreaked havoc on the canon (or tried to). I’m not being nostalgic but just making a note of how academic fashions come and go.
We have been using as background reading for our second-year ‘Victorian Literature’ course Maureen Moran’s guide, simply called Victorian Literature and Culture (Continuum, 2007). When I write ‘using’ I mean that students are expected to read it in the first month and then pass a quiz. I must confess that my colleagues and I had great fun preparing the multiple choice questions, particularly the nonsensical option that should be discarded first (but that each year a handful of students do choose…). I have read, then, Sharon Ruston’s introduction in the same series, called Romanticism, to consider whether we could use it in a similar way. I have enjoyed it very much but there are a number of issues that worry me and that I would like to address here. One is the very construction of the books called introductions and the other is the resilience of the canon.
I have already written here two posts about the sub-genre of the introduction. One in 2011, on British theatre (http://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/2011/03/09/like-a-crowded-party-reading-introductions-to-british-theatre/); the other just last year, 2017, about Scottish Literature (http://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/2017/07/03/trying-to-catch-up-a-book-on-recent-scottish-literature/). I may be repeating, then, some of the arguments, though this topic always takes a slightly different angle depending on the material. Thus, last September 27, I attended the presentation of the volume edited by Teresa López-Pellisa, Historia de la ciencia ficción en la cultura española at Llibreria Gigamesh and you can see that the presenter, Prof. Miquel Barceló, spent a good deal of his talk wondering how such a dense volume should be read (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XzgkedREkjg). I myself intervened to question whether a book is the ideal vehicle for an introduction, guide, or history but seeing Teresa’s concerned face (her publisher was in the room…) I quickly changed subject.
Historia… is very different from Ruston’s Romanticism yet they present similar problems because these are books that need to be studied, not just read. Miquel Barceló referred to Teresa’s excellent volume as a ‘reference book’ but this is not really what it is. His own Ciencia ficción: Nueva guía de lectura (the 2015 new edition based on his 1990 classic) is, for me, a reference book: you can read it from end to end or just dip into it for specific information. Of course, this is what he meant in relation to the 14 chapters in Historia… but even if you take each chapter separately, you still need paper and pen to make notes or, as I did, keep your tablet close by to check whatever you need to check. And here’s a problem (also with Ruston’s Romanticism): when I read books that survey a literary field, I need to see pictures as a memory aid–of authors, book covers, places, arts, you name it… Whether this is a thick 500+ page book (like Historia….) or a slim 150-page volume like Ruston’s, a survey which offers no illustrations is beginning to be problematic for me as a reader of the internet age. Imagine what the digital natives seating in our classrooms must think of so much print…
I’ll leave the ambitious Historia de la ciencia ficción en la cultura española aside to focus on the introductions to literary periods for undergrads to claim that they should be offered, ideally, as hypertextual online resources most attractive to navigate. Now, the problem with the available resources (at least the ones I know of) is that either they are too basic, or too sprawling. Also, excuse me, antiquated. Look, for instance, at the very well-known Victorian Web. If you read the credits page, you will see that, basically the website’s configuration dates back to the mid 1990s. It has been growing magnificently in number of documents and now it offers versions in Spanish and French. But, although it is listed as one of the resources we recommend to our students, I’m very sorry to say that it is not really useful to them–it can even have the negative effect of overwhelming them. It is not my intention to criticize in any way what is, I insist, a wonder of the academic world but to question the inexistence of truly adequate, basic level introductions to literary periods and schools that can be safely recommended to undergrads.
Let’s see if I can explain myself better. Take Ruston’s book, with its four sections: 1. Historical, Cultural and Intellectual Context, 2. Literature in the Romantic Period, 3. Critical Approaches, and 4. Resources for Independent Study (including a chronology, a glossary of key concepts, and a bibliography). This is about 125 pages of text (parts 1, 2 and 3) and about 30 for part 4–a reasonably brief text, of a size that would adapt very well to the website format. The moment I started reading, I could see where the links to other online resources could be placed and where the pictures should be inserted; their absence grew louder as I read on and what appeared to be basic information started thickening into a lovely but very thick broth.
Half-way into the book, I understood what the problem is: Ruston has a marvellous understanding of the Romantic period and an impressive ability to offer a synthesis but she thinks as an expert academic and not as an undergrad student. Her introduction made perfect sense to me–as does Moran’s to the Victorian Age–because I already know what she is writing about and can, thus, enjoy the new twists and turns she has introduced in the canonical story I was handed down back in 1988. But I’m sure that our second year students approaching the Victorian age or Romanticism anew must be mostly baffled.
In Ruston’s volume there is, also, a perceptible tension between what is relevant and irrelevant, which is part of all introductions. Thus, no matter how amazing the Lunar Society (a Midlands scientific league of the most advanced minds of the time) seems to the author, I doubt that our students find the 3.5 pages about it relevant to the study of Wordsworth and company. This tension is, of course, most palpable in Ruston’s attempt to undo the vision of Romanticism as a period dominated by the poetry written by the six male geniuses (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats).
Our syllabus, as you may imagine, is focused on their poems (30% of the course) with the other two thirds devoted to celebrating women’s fiction, with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813). Reading Ruston, however, I felt positively guilty that we strike such a poor gender balance in the poetry segment; then, at the same time I wondered whether I really want to teach Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Charlotte Smith or Joanna Baillie instead of any of the six men. We might correct this by including in our booklet more poems by women but classroom time is awfully limited as it is. I realize that for others the real sin lies in not teaching Walter Scott’s novels but, again, if we had one year instead of one semester, we might include one of his books. As things are now, neither Mary Shelley nor Jane Austen are replaceable (at least to me).
A problem, then, is that if we really follow the picture that Ruston draws of the Romantic period and we radically alter the syllabus we run the risk of giving our students an impression that would not agree with the standard view. I do realize that we are changing the syllabus all the time: Frankenstein would have seemed an odd choice for the 1988 course I took. At the same time, I doubt very much that students will criticize us for not telling them about Hannah Moore–and the other way round: the experiment last year consisted of including the anti-slavery autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789) to emphasize that the Romantic period was a time of abolitionist agitation. From what I’m told, students failed to be enthusiastic.
In an ideal situation, I would have the 70 students in my Romanticism class produce their own study materials, not in e-book form (as I have done in other courses) but as a small, limited, accessible website. This, I know, is pure madness for it requires an investment of time and digital know-how that I simply lack–and also because, guess what?, the result would not count as a Ministry-approved merit for my CV. A friend told me recently that publishing an introduction in book form has many advantages because this is a kind of text often quoted. I must stress, however, that the Spanish Ministry of Education, or, rather, the ANECA agency, does not rate introductions as valid research. Two friends, each the author of a valued introduction to their fields, have confirmed this point after failing their personal assessment exercise.
We, then, simply need to make do with what we can purchase or check online–which is, besides, produced in the anglophone world with no consideration of whether it is adaptable to other cultures. And hope that this will do for our students.
I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/